Journalism’s Era of Change, but Objectivity Still Plays a Critical Role

As the upheaval in journalism spurs searches for new models, few concepts seem to be more at risk than “objectivity.” The subject resonates in journalism conferences and journalism classes: Is objectivity a value worth carrying into the future? Tom Kent (@tjrkent), Standards Editor at the Associated Press, and an editorial advisor to the EJN, considers the issue and warns about the dangers of losing touch with objective journalism.

That everyone understands objectivity differently makes it a dangerously fuzzy concept, easy road kill in the rush to new journalistic techniques.

We dismiss it at our peril.

At heart, objective journalism sets out to establish the facts about a situation, report fairly the range of opinion around it and take a first cut at what arguments are the most reasonable. To keep the presentation rigorous, journalists should have professional reporting and editing skills (be they staff or independent journalists, paid or unpaid). To show their commitment to balance, journalists should keep their personal opinions to themselves.

It’s a simple enough concept, distillable to “unbiased journalism,” “trusted reporting” or in the view of some, simply “journalism.”

Add to that “customer service.” The news consumer needs faith that there’s somewhere to go quickly for the basic facts that business, politics and personal safety depend on.

Is Gadhafi dead? Is the oil well still leaking? How close to the Fukushima reactor can I safely go? It seems a no-brainer that there’s a value to established, reliable voices on the things that matter most -- experienced in sorting out contradictions, wary of sloppiness and hoaxes and not pushing a personal objective.

Yet attach the word “objective” to the concept, and confusion ensues.

To some, objectivity somehow evokes the “legacy” news industry, destined to die with it (a demise as yet unobserved, if accepted by many as an article of faith). These critics see objectivity as a reactive, stenographic form of journalism, so wedded to “balance” that it cannot distinguish between legitimate and lunatic opinion, between scientific truth and trash.

Others see objectivity as the calling card of the elite, rooted in a belief that “professionals” can so completely cover a complex story that journalists’ voices are all people need to hear.

Still others believe objectivity has never existed at all because perfect objectivity is impossible. Much like a perfect vacuum or a perfect circle, it can be imagined but never really created, so its loss is without cost.

Our view is that objectivity, far from a device of old media or the elite, is the key to deeply democratic news media now and in the future. It can reliably serve both traditional journalism and new models, including the most open-sourced processes for gathering and analyzing news.

Perfect objectivity is indeed hard to imagine. (We mean it in the sense of presenting all sides of an issue, not of determining a single, objective truth.) The very act of deciding what angles of a story to cover is inherently subjective, notes Gilles Gauthier of Laval University. Where and how to point the camera comes from personal instinct and feelings, not mathematical formulas. Getting “both sides of the story” can leave journalists satisfied they’ve done a good day’s work when even more valid third and fourth sides remain unexplored.

Yet we live with a system of courts that is not perfectly just and we accept rides in cars from people who are not perfect drivers. We play by the percentages in everything. And the percentages favoring objective journalism have actually increased in the past couple of decades. For those who believe objective reporting is a worthy concept but a problem in practice, crowdsourcing and social networks now make it more practical than ever.

Today’s objective journalism does not have to consist solely of words and images from journalists. Crowdsourcing of information and policy alternatives, through the news media’s own platforms or social networks, can be integral parts of an objective journalistic process. Of course, the crowd must reflect a variety of points of view; crowdsourcing among members of a mob will bring a plethora of voices but not of viewpoints.

There is no contradiction between professionals doing their own reporting while also curating the voices of others. This has been the story of the civil war in Syria. International news organizations have sent their own correspondents into Syria and broken their own stories. But the same organizations have crowd sourced a huge amount of day-to-day battlefront coverage, using social networks and direct contacts to obtain details, photos and even live video of street battles. The authentic voice of Syrian individuals reporting from the scene has vastly enriched the picture without endangering the objectivity of the product; the organizations involved have long experience in identifying skilled reporters and detecting fake and outdated footage.

Is such crowd sourced reporting ultimately a threat to professional journalists? We think not, because objectivity isn’t so much about controlling the information available as making sure it’s all there. Whether a conflict is on a distant battlefield or in a state legislature, there is no contradiction between the voices of those at the scene and of journalists, detached from the event but close to news consumers, putting the pieces into a whole that will command their audience’s attention. And, of course, sometimes journalists can be on the scene and present the big picture at the same time; examples range from smart foreign correspondents to Homicide Watch D.C.

Then there’s a whole additional world of reader reactions. New, professional media like the Huffington Post have invested significant resources in that feedback. The result is an even more objective account of events that now takes in people at the scene, detached and professional observers and the opinions of the readership at large.

On breaking stories, journalists carry out another, supremely important role: summarizing the news and the debate at frequent intervals – sometimes minute by minute – for those who cannot follow every turn of the story. Those who see journalists as elite of “gatekeepers” under such circumstances have the picture precisely backward.

It is a far more elite perspective to think that the majority of the world’s population has the time or inclination to follow in detail every story that interests them. It is an elite concept that in a future world without “objective journalism,” a person who hears on the way to work that Hamas is firing rockets at Israel will arrive at work, head immediately to his personal, well-curated Twitter feed of conflicting voices and video from Israel and Gaza and distill his own, exquisitely balanced version of events.

Most people who arrive at work need to start work. They value fast, concise and reliable news when their time permits. Objective media provide a profoundly democratic source of information, offering the vast majority of the population with limited time and attention an account of the world in a fashion that news consumers have long found quick and reliable. This is a competitive advantage of “legacy” media that helps explains its continued existence at a time of so many challenges.

It is no surprise then that, as the Project for Excellence in Journalism has found, so many social media posts links to traditional objective media. Or that breaking news on Twitter tends to be massively retweeted only once it’s confirmed by a traditional news organization; American Journalism Review found the case of Whitney Houston’s death a good example. Social network users, once they learn of a breaking story, massively seek out traditional sources for more information and imagery.

What about the claim that covering both sides of the story leads objective journalists to equate truth and nonsense?

Clay Shirky of New York University says, “Judgement about legitimate consensus is becoming a critical journalistic skill, one that traditional training and mores don’t prepare most practitioners for.” Craig Newmark fears that a “pretense of objectivity” leads journalists to treat fringe beliefs as significantly as facts in an effort to show the story is reporting all points of view.

As Aidan White of the Ethical Journalism Network puts it, “To be ethical journalists, particularly those covering politics, must stop quoting two sides of a story when one side is lying. At the very least they must tell their audience when that side is lying.”

In fact, modern newsrooms have been pushing back at this limited view of objectivity for some time. Legions of aggressive, objective journalists do not share Arthur Brisbane’s puzzlement over whether it is possible “to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another.”

Objective newsrooms today deal regularly and quite successfully with disputes over facts. Since the vast majority of the world’s scientists believe the globe is heating up, few news stories on the subject devote substantial space to those who deny it. Fact-checking politicians’ statements originated with traditional, objective media, and flourished there long before the current wave of new-media sites doing the same thing on an expanded basis.

If a journalist has thoroughly studied a subject and understands it well, the tenets of objectivity do not require a “view from nowhere” that ignores the journalist’s knowledge. On social networks, he can rebut false information with facts. This is the kind of objectivity that Jay Rosen hopefully can be a fan of, and the functioning model for many journalists today.

Objectivity also doesn’t mean rejection of human emotion. The slaying of children by a gunman at a school can be fairly referred to as horrific; there is no need for a paragraph saying “on the other hand.” A photographer covering a war or disaster can put his camera aside when he has a chance to save a life. A journalist can be transparent about his biography and experiences, so long as he doesn’t turn them into a political agenda. There is nothing robotic about an objective journalist; reasonable judgments and human ethics and experience need not be suppressed.

The attraction of objective journalism is such that Wikipedia, increasingly a destination for breaking news coverage, has adopted a policy of presenting an objective, “neutral point of view.”

When a big story happens, Wikipedia readers post thousands of updates. Volunteer editors quickly join the effort, organizing the material. Yet as Brian Keegan discovered, the editors change from one breaking news story to another and few have substantial editing experience. According to Keegan, who conducted research at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Communications:

“In all likelihood, readers of these breaking news articles are mostly consuming the work of editors who have never previously worked on this kind of event. In other words, some of the earliest and most widely read information about breaking news events is written by people with fewer journalistic qualifications than Medill freshmen.”

Here is a situation where a pillar of new media values objectivity, but professional standards or qualifications could make that goal even more attainable. It should also be noted that the heaviest lifting in Wikipedia’s “coverage” of breaking news is often not being done by its contributors or editors. It is being done by the traditional media, from which much of the information being curated is taken. If Wikipedia’s contributors couldn’t count on these reports being objective to begin with, Wikipedia would have difficulty living up to its “neutral point of view.”

Wikipedia’s policy aside, it’s surprising that amid the success of many new media that value objectivity, few generally accepted codes of conduct have emerged. Despite some laudable attempts, the best examples of new journalism have failed to unite around consistent ethics codes to the degree that legacy media have. Work now under way suggests a desire for progress in this direction. But sometimes such efforts are undertaken in the same breath as pronouncing traditional journalism dead or dying, complicating the import of some of its most useful principles.

The value objective journalists add goes well beyond getting individual stories right. It goes to the entire texture of information in a society.

In some social systems, the news media serve the state; Vladimir Lenin called the press a collective agitator, propagandist and organizer for the Soviet system. Elsewhere, media exist to serve the politics of individual owners, or to foment sensation for the sake of profit.

Happily, civilized society has also allowed the rise of voices of reason that can assess a situation from everyone’s viewpoint and lead rational discussion. If the discussion leaders focus on the merits of all sides instead of proclaiming an agenda of their own, the discussion is more successful.

This is the core value of objectivity: the creation of a strong, balanced public dialogue that cannot be overwhelmed by government fiat, political slant, specious information, simplistic argument and hate.

In Nigeria, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai asks, “What happens when every sense of objectivity is blurred by the murky ink of hatchet writers or clouded by shades of religious and ethnic prisms? What happens when voices without conscience, and loath to accept facts dominate our media and discourse?”

The value of objectivity is not simply a debate to hold in seminars and journalism schools. It is a fundamental value of public discourse and collaboration. It will endure precisely as long as people speak out in its defence.

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